Is it possible to digitize human consciousness?

The Human Brain and Its Connectome

There are an estimated 100 billion neurons in the human brain.
There are an estimated 100 billion neurons in the human brain.
© cosmin4000/iStockphoto

The Human Genome Project set out to identify all our human genes and sequence human DNA. The Human Microbiome Project was established to identify and sequence all the microbes colonizing the human gut. And another similar scientific research project is identifying, mapping and deciphering something else that defines our humanness: the brain's neural pathways. This is the Human Connectome Project.

The connectome, it's believed, is responsible for the things that make you who you are. The human brain contains an estimated 100 billion individual neurons, each one connected and firing messages to as many as 10,000 other neurons [source: Collins]. This signaling, which may be neurons firing simultaneously or in a sequence, is how the brain encodes and processes information, how it forms associations and how it performs tasks. It's possibly also the very essence of being human, including your personal memories, your talents and all the quirky things that make up your individual personality. That's all contained in your connectome.

The concept of human consciousness is often compared to the keys of a car; your car is an amazing machine, but without the ignition key there's no spark, no sign of life. Consciousness is how we know and experience both ourselves and the world around us, and it's created from the information exchange that happens in the brain's neural network.

There are a few leading theories, or at least starting points, as to what makes up human consciousness. Integrated information theorists, for instance, calculate the amount of integrated information in a neural network, a quantity called phi. The more links within the network, the more information sharing, and vice versa. Another theory suggests human consciousness works like computer memory. The global workspace theory suggests the brain collects information and the art of dispersing it across the neural network is, perhaps, consciousness.